With the Premier League season now past the halfway mark, Liverpool has transitioned from early season surprise to what appears to be a solid squad that finds itself in the thick of the title race.
After sitting in first place on Christmas Day, the Reds dropped down in the table following consecutive losses to Manchester City and Chelsea before rebounding with wins against Hull City and Stoke City. Liverpool currently sits in the all-important fourth-place slot heading into this weekend’s match with Aston Villa.
But while they are only six points off the pace set by league-leaders Arsenal, it may be time for Liverpool to readjust their focus away from claiming the league crown and zero in instead on securing a Champions League slot for next season.
Liverpool is 11 points better than they were after 21 games last season, but they have still struggled against the three teams above them in the table, losing to Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea so far this season. They have fared better against the three teams directly below them, defeating Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, while drawing with Everton.
The Reds squad is also starting to get healthy again, welcoming Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge back to the lineup in the past week. Sturridge’s return is a key to the club’s success, as he is still the team’s second-leading goal scorer despite missing almost two months of action. As the club showed on Sunday against Stoke City, having Sturridge on the pitch with Luis Suarez can be too much for an opposing defense to handle.
But we still can’t shake those results against the top three clubs, games which may have revealed that while Liverpool has improved under second-year manager Brendan Rodgers, they are still not quite ready to make a serious run at the top spot.
Rodgers’ comments after Sunday’s win against Stoke City echo those thoughts:
“We entered the game today, 18 games to go, nine at home, nine away, knowing that seven of those nine were against teams in the bottom half.
“That doesn’t mean they are gimmes by any mean – it is a tough league – but certainly we have shown enough that we are going to be challenging and that is all we ever wanted to be. We never stated we are going to win the league, to jump from where we have been at, we just needed to be in the conversation.”
In addition to having seven games against teams currently in the bottom half of the table, Liverpool has only one road match – at Manchester United – among their games against the other top six clubs. Everyone else had to make the trip to Anfield, where Liverpool has only lost once and has outscored the opposition 27-6.
Rodgers comes across as very pragmatic; he knows his team is good, but it’s just not that good – yet. With a full lineup, Liverpool can match up with any team in the league offensively, although their defense still needs some work.
While you obviously play to win the game, Liverpool probably doesn’t have the talent to make a serious push for the top spot over the season’s final games. And no matter how hard they try, it may not be enough with three teams ahead of them.
In addition, there is not that large of a gap between Liverpool and the teams trailing them – Everton is just one point back, Spurs are just two and Manchester United is five behind. And no matter how much David Moyes’ team is struggling, is anyone really comfortable writing off Manchester United until the very end?
For now, focusing on that Champions League spot may be the best course of action and, if one or two of the teams ahead of them slip up and the Reds can move up a spot, then that’s a bonus. But they have to be careful not to slip up themselves.
The disappointment of going another year without a league title would certainly be softened by the money a Champions League spot would bring, money that could help the club add to what is becoming a talented core group of players.
And if they do that, then next year could be the season that Liverpool becomes more than just a talking point in the conversation about the league title.
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